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Posted October 12, 2018

  • Do you feel anxious when you are not working?
  • Does the thought of working get you more excited than the thought of spending time relaxing with family and friends?
  • Do you deliberately spend increasingly longer hours working, at the expense of other interests, such as hobbies and social events?

If you answered mostly in the affirmative, read on!

Many factors influence and enable work addiction. For example, many societies place a premium on people who work hard, making it more difficult to identify workaholics. Moreover, this addiction is not limited to a particular gender or industry and affects both men and women equally across the board. 

For many professionals, blurring the lines between work and life is acceptable whilst they passionately build their careers. Usually, this isn’t a problem as long as your professional life is balanced with an equally important personal life. However, when your work starts to take on increasingly larger proportions of time, leaving room for little else, then you may have a work addiction problem. 

The critical difference between those who work hard and those who are viewed as addicted to work, is about the long list of problems that excessive working causes. And, as always, we have to look at the impact a large workload has on each person. Whilst one person may be able to work in excess of 80 hours per week without any serious side effects, someone else may experience disastrous consequences as a result of the long hours spent toiling away. 

Overwork, (a toxic, obsessive-compulsive addiction towards work), although more difficult to recognize, is,similar to other addictions, like drugs or gambling; a form of self-destructive behaviour. Its negative impact is three-tiered; i.e. psychologically, physically and socially. Research indicates that workaholics are at a high risk for poor health, burnout, depression, and lowered life satisfaction. Overwork also creates a myriad of interpersonal relationship problems, such as the neglect of children and spouses, sometimes resulting in separation or divorce.

However, it is also important to point out that the external pressure from the workplace does not createworkaholics. On the contrary, workaholics feel compelled to work unhealthily long hours because of internal needs that are typically linked with a desire to escape the anxiety associated with their intrapersonal lives.As such, workaholics often use work as a coping mechanism to deal with anxiety. 

When viewed through a Transactional Analysis lens, the “responsible-workaholic” (seen here as an obsessive-compulsive personality style) is driven by a desire to “Be Perfect”. This behaviour is what Joines and Stewart (Personality adaptations, a new guide to human understanding in psychotherapy and counselling2002) call a “performing adaptation”. It is a response to parental emphasis on “appropriate behaviour and expectations regarding performance” on both a professional and personal level. The workaholic’s parents usually equate the worth and the value of their child with that of achievement. This child then grows up to become an adult who sees achievement (often at the expense of healthy self-worth and self-esteem) as a means of getting approval and of being acknowledged. Workaholism can therefore be defined as “working to be”.

Unlike those who truly enjoy their work, workaholics often feel worried, and stressed out. And while they don't get enjoyment from working, they tend to paradoxically, become increasingly miserable and unhappy when they cannot work.There is an authoritative inner critic which relentlessly drives them to overwork and to overachieve. They struggle to relax and to enjoy their accomplishments, as they feel guilty and ashamed when doing nothing as this generates feelings of guilt and reinforces feelings of shame and inadequacy.

Contrary to popular belief, workaholics cause more harm than good to their companies. The more workaholics work, the greater the negative consequences they experience, which in turn, creates more stress, and also ironically, decreases their productivity. And less productivity then results in longer hours at work; so perpetuating a vicious cycle of overwork. 

In addition, they also frown on those who do not put in the same amount of hours as they do. And, because of a deep-seated fear of losing control, they micromanage their direct reports so as to ensure the work meets their high standards. This punitive attitude limits creative input, lowers team morale and erodes trust; factors that are increasingly important in a workplace that requires teamwork and collaboration.

Does your work style negatively affect your mental or physical health? And are your relationships in dire need of quality attention? Are you willing to be the victim of overwork, aptly recognised by theologian, mystic and poet, Thomas Merton, as a “pervasive contemporary violence against the self”?

Steps to limit your workaholism:

  • Control your perfectionist tendencies, by reflecting, on completion, whether the task has been done to a “good enough” degree, to ensure you are working smarter rather than ever harder;
  • Stop being a people-pleaser by accepting every task you that comes your way. Not all assignments need to be done by you, but may be growth opportunities for someone less experienced and to whom the task could be delegated
  • Always pause and ask: is this deadline achievable or is there some amount of flexibility to allow for time spent on other priorities? It is the last/small straw that breaks the camels back! 
  • Set boundaries and adhere to these. For example, set aside one day of the week, as your time off and purposefully introduce fun into your life. Do so by developing a routine of activities outside of work, preferably with somebody else, in order to keep you committed. These could include regular exercise, meditation, reading, listening to music, or watching films. 
  • Train yourself to respond positively to waking up too early or in the middle of the night. Instead of getting up and doing something ”useful”; lie quietly, allowing yourself to reflect on aspects of your life that you normally do not pay sufficient attention to. 
  • Most of all, enlist the support of important people in your life to keep you motivated! Chances are, they have probably been telling you that you overwork!
  • Finally, if you work in an environment where workaholism is an accepted norm and expected behavior, perhaps it is time to consider whether it is a place that reflects and resonates with your deepest values or whether a wholescale change is needed, either culturally or personally.


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